Cycling Patagonia: El Chaltén to Tierra Del Fuego (Trip Report Part 1)

This is a trip journal I wrote back in March 2019 during a 5 week bicycle tour in Patagonia. The amazing adventure started with two weeks on the Carretera Austral with a friend. After she went home, I pedaled solo southeast from El Chaltén to Rio Gallegos across the barren pampa, then south back into Chile and took the ferry across to the island of Tierra Del Fuego. From there I headed south on a combination of paved and gravel roads, passing back into Argentina and eventually ending at Ushuaia, the southernmost official city in the world.

I don’t usually post full trip journals here, but I thought the detail might be useful to future cyclists, so I’m experimenting. For related posts, see also:

The full route from El Chaltén south (after finishing the Carretera Austral) is shown here, with blue pins marking my camp locations:

For navigation and camping, I highly recommend the apps Maps.me and iOverlander. For more detail on cycling in the region in general, see my more organized guide on cycling the Carretera Austral.

Now, on with the trip report!


Leaving El Chaltén almost everything changed. Black Pearl and I exchanged jagged mountains for windswept plains, bumpy gravel for smooth pavement, and scenic campsites for shelter anywhere it can be found: abandoned buildings, construction sites, bus stop shelters. And with my friend headed home and our Canadian friends on a different schedule, I also swapped the ease and fun of companionship for a satisfying sense of solitude in a vast wild place. Put all this together and it’s felt like an entirely different trip! Riding solo also means I have more time to write notes in the evenings, so you get all the details, lucky you.

I could tell the 3 nights in El Chaltén were rejuvenating because I felt excited to hit the road again, even though I was a bit nervous about striking out solo in this remote place.  I pedaled out of El Chaltén in a cold drizzle feeling surprisingly upbeat. Smooth flat pavement never felt so good, and with a gentle tailwind it took only two hours to cover a day’s worth of hard-fought distance at our Carretera Austral pace. What a difference road conditions make! The scenery quickly changed to scrubby brown desert, complete with mesas in the distance, while the snowy peaks of the Andes were still visible behind me. Traffic was extremely light and I loved the solitude of being out there in the middle of so much vast nothingness.

View behind me leaving El Chaltén

Late in the afternoon our Canadian cyclist friends passed in their friends’ campervan, hitching a ride to the next town to see a glacier before getting back on their bikes. They pulled over in a flurry of honking and all jumped out to offer me Gatorade and dulce de leche pastry and tell me how fast I was riding. It was just what I needed. Hopefully I’ll meet up with them again farther south.

Not the most scenic lunch spot
Heading to Rio Gallegos

After about 120km I made it to the well known Pink House, an abandoned restaurant used as a camping shelter by cyclists in this windy region. I was hoping to find a few other friendly faces there, but I found the house and nearby smaller buildings all empty and a little creepy with all their smashed windows and ruined structures. Fortunately the walls have been signed and doodled on by hundreds of cyclists, leaving me sure I was in the right place. I washed in the river, cooked my dinner and read on the back step until the sun went down.

The famous Pink House
Not the most glamorous place I’ve ever spent the night, but it was a great shelter.

Despite the creepiness I slept great and late, waking at 8:30 and enjoying a leisurely breakfast in my very own abandoned house. When I hit the road at 10:30 the infamous wind was already raging, an awkward crosswind that kept pushing me into the (fortunately empty) traffic lane. At times it was manageable and at times it was almost impossible to ride. A few degrees change in direction made all the difference, and I quickly learned that on this particular road and day the left curves were good and right curves were bad. No matter how much I had read or how many stories I heard about the wind down here, it’s impossible to understand until you try to ride in it. It’s a wild ride; all you can do is try to hang on.

Even with the ridiculous wind it was a pretty enjoyable day. The sun was out and I rode in shorts and a t-shirt (tucked in so it wouldn’t blow up) for the first time since early in the Carretera. After living in my rain gear for days it felt amazing.  The landscape was all bright blue and gold as far as I could see. The light traffic often brought friendly waves and honks of encouragement. Entire families swiveled their heads as they passed to watch the crazy cyclist leaning into the wind or pulled off to let them pass when the gusts made it impossible to hold a straight line. Two guys in a passing camper van flexed their biceps and pumped their fists in encouragement of my apparent strength.

At a scenic overlook I met Rebecca, leaning against her bike trying to eat an apple while the wind whipped her dreadlocks in her face. She asked right away if I was alone. She was too, and said I was the first solo lady cyclist she’d met since starting in Ushuaia. Though I’ve only been alone for two days, she’s got a long trip ahead of her. When I asked her where she’ll end she just shrugged. Still, she seemed happy to meet another solo lady regardless of my short duration, and I certainly was too. There are tons of solo guys out here but ladies are unfortunately rare.

After 65km I hit the junction with the road to El Calafate and turned east. Immediately my world grew calmer. The awkward side wind became a zooming tailwind and my gears were barely high enough to keep up with pedaling. I only got to enjoy it for 10 kilometers before reaching the last sheltered campsite for the next 55km. With some knee pain from fighting the wind all day I made the conservative decision to camp there by the river next to a bridge, and spent hours reading in the warm sun.

I pitched my tent under some very low trees in a place where I couldn’t even stand but had great protection from wind and sight. The spot turned out to be slopey though and I didn’t sleep well. I had dreams of finding idyllic campsites and nightmares about waking to men outside my tent, but each time I woke everything was still the same.

Cozy stealth camping beside the highway

In the morning I tackled the 20km climb, and much to my surprise really enjoyed it. After the rough steep roads of the Carretera and the stiff wind of the day before, I felt like I could climb this gradual grade forever in the calm morning air and crisp sunshine. For two hours I just spun away in a music- and pedaling-induced trance as the road climbed high above the valley. The top almost – but not quite – came too soon.

Top of the climb

And then came the icy wind. Up on a high plateau with nowhere to hide, I finally understood what I was in for, and it’s hard to describe. It dried out my mouth and the pressure difference made my ears hurt. It made my nose run and then blew away the snot (gross, sorry). It left me breathless.

Five hours after leaving camp I stopped for lunch in the first shelter I found, some trees planted beside a roadworks building. It was possible to camp there, but it was only 2:30pm. The next decent sheltered camp spot was another 70km away in the tiny town of La Esperanza. At my current pace that would be another 7 hours… But comparing road angles on the map using straight pieces of dry grass I figured the road was trending slightly more eastward as it went, which should give just a hint of tailwind to balance the awkward crosswind. It was too early to stop for the day, so I grabbed some extra water from the road workers in case I didn’t make it to town, moved a whole loaf of dulce de leche chocolate cake into my handlebar bag, and prepared for 7 hours of battle trying to move forward in a world where everything only wants to move sideways.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

In the end the wind calmed a bit and it only took another 4.5 hours. The first few were actually enjoyable as I bounced along to some catchy music on the nearly empty highway through nothingness.  Every now and then I’d see a herd of shy guanacos (look like llamas, sound like horses), a rabbit, big ostrich-like birds, or some vultures picking at roadkill. Also lots of pee bottles tossed out the widows by truckers who really need to hydrate better. The things you notice on a bike that you miss from a car!

Guanacos

Despite the music and good rhythm eventually the infamous monotony of the featureless pampa took its toll, and I started forgetting where I was, who I was, and why I was having so much fun. I even stopped keeping track of exactly which direction the wind was blowing. All I knew was that I could still pedal in a straight line without too much difficulty, so I did that for a few more hours and ended up at La Esperanza around 7:30pm. It had been a big day, 130km with some climbing and rough winds, and I was ready to be done. Five minutes later it started to rain.

I asked at the police station about camping, and the kind officers showed me to a garage full of junk that smelled of gasoline but offered great shelter. At the gas station across the street I bought dinner #1 and used the wifi, then cooked dinner #2 back in the police garage and pitched my tent. It rained most of the night but the garage roof kept me dry and cozy.

Camping at the police station in La Esperanza

I woke to another day of cold drizzle, but it was just testing my resolve; once I got on the road it stopped immediately. Finally it seems I’d earned a day of good wind. There’s not much to say except it was a pretty painless 120km with a light tailwind. The terrain grew less pristine and a bit less attractive – more fences along the road and industrial looking buildings way off in the distance.

With only 30km to go to Rio Gallegos and plenty of daylight left, I stopped early at a campsite on the edge of return to civilization. It was the perfect place to take a lovely hot shower and catch up on sleep. I met a young Dutch couple on a road trip and did some route research. The owner’s dog stole one of my food bags, but I managed to get it back when he returned for more and I followed him into the bushes. Victory! Do NOT take food from a hungry bicycle traveler.

The next morning I tackled the four lane highway into town. The Dutch couple had warned me it would be scary on a bike, but I found it relaxing. It had a paved shoulder wide enough to park a car in (but unlike southeast Asia nobody actually did) and very light traffic. Rio Gallegos itself had a gritty feel and I could see why everyone had told me it’s “not that nice.” For the first time on this trip I actually felt like I was just riding a bicycle through someone else’s country, as opposed to the beautiful and touristy outdoor playground that most of this route has been.

It didn’t seem worth spending the night and it was still early, so I restocked on food at a huge supermarket and pedaled out of town. It was the biggest grocery store I’ve seen on this trip, but I was about to cross back into Chile with its strict rules on bringing in food, so I had to bypass all the amazing fresh produce and healthy protein in favor of yet more pasta and rice. Ironically, 60km later at the border, they barely even glanced in my panniers. Oh well.

I didn’t get across the Chilean border until after 7pm.  The golden plains were beautiful in the evening light but I’d had a long day. Fortunately another 15km brought me to a lovely enclosed bus shelter where I knew cyclists sometimes sleep. It was all mine for the night and I settled in. I’m still not used to sleeping alone so near a highway, so I put Black Pearl across the door and pitched my tent (but slept on the bench) to make it look like two people were there. Of course there is almost no one out here and no reason for any of them to cause trouble, and the night passed peacefully except for the rumble of occasional large trucks heading to or from the border.

My shelter for the night, on the left

Still, in the morning I was a bit on edge when a young man in a red pickup truck pulled up outside while I was packing. He asked in English if I spoke Spanish, then in a mix of English and Spanish he offered me a freshly bought chicken sandwich, chocolate milk and bottle of water. Amazing! I tried to ask why but all I understood was that he works down a nearby gravel road and passes by the shelter often. I don’t know if he’d seen me sleeping there and bought the food for me, or just decided to give his lunch to the traveler sleeping in the bus shelter on his way to work. In any case, we chatted a tiny bit in broken Spanish and he went on his way, leaving me with a renewed appreciation for random acts of kindness.

I took a gravel road as a shortcut to the ferry, cutting through lots of empty windswept grassland along the Strait of Magellen. I saw owls, gulls, pink flamingos(!), rabbits, skunks, and lots of sheep. Though the main highway isn’t very busy, it was still a nice break from watching my rear view mirror all the time. In 35km I saw only two vehicles, more of the red pickup trucks I’ve come to recognize as company cars that swarm this oil production region.

At the Punta Delgada ferry I waited with the cars as nearly a dozen huge tanker trucks unloaded coming from the other direction. Then they loaded all the cars and trucks on our side and motioned me on last, the only passenger without a vehicle. The fare for bicycles was clearly posted in a long list as about $7.50 (same as for a horse, incidentally) but the cashier told me not to worry about it, he would pay for me. So I got a free ferry ride! I’m sure he didn’t actually pay anything – they make their money from cars and trucks – but it was a kind gesture to a cold cyclist on a rainy day. The crossing only took about 30 minutes and then I was on the island of Tierra Del Fuego.

For a place named Land of Fire, my introduction to Tierra Del Fuego was awfully cold and wet. I rode for a few hours in chilly rain but fortunately light wind to the small town of Cerro Sombrero, legendary among travelers for its open wifi and free, clean hot showers that revived my chilled hands and feet.

Cerro Sombrero is an odd and ugly place, basically a company town for the national oil company. But their tourism manager is a forward-thinking genius and the place has grown on me so much that I’m now taking a rest day here. It’s felt satisfyingly dirtbaggish to pitch my tent in the wind shelter of a construction project outside the tourist office restrooms, dry my clothes on their radiators, use the wifi and charge my electronics at their power outlets, all for free. These things become so compelling when you don’t normally have access to them.

The best wind shelter I could find

The puzzle now is what to do with my remaining few days. The unpredictable weather here means an ambitious route could easily backfire and leave me in danger of missing my flight, since bad winds can make it literally impossible to ride. But I’m still hungry for more riding and don’t want to just kill time. If the Canadian couple catches me during my rest day it’ll be lovely to ride with them for one more day and visit the penguin colony together. Then it’ll probably be back to solo riding on gravel roads to finish off my trip. Next time I write, hopefully I’ll be in Punta Arenas in time for my flight home from this wild and windy place.


Continued in Part 2.

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About the Author

Hi there, I’m Alissa. I’ve biked over 10,000 miles (enough to stop counting) in nine countries and still haven’t kicked the bike travel bug. Pavement and panniers or singletrack and seat bag, I love it all. On my bike I feel free. Learn more or say hi.


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